IOWA (5-0) vs. PITTSBURGH (6-0)
DATE: November 27, 2018
TIME: 8:00 p.m. CT
LOCATION: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
RADIO: Learfield Sports
LINE: Iowa -13
KENPOM: Iowa -12 (86% win probability)
Pitt basketball over the last half-decade is a case study in what not to do with a college basketball program. The Panthers (1) changed athletic directors, (2) lowered the buyout for a coach who had posted two 30-win seasons and three Sweet 16 appearances to get him out of town, (3) botched its move for Dan Hurley, and (4) then hired Kevin Stallings, who was awfully close to getting fired from Vanderbilt by that point in time.
It was a disaster. In Dixon's last year, Pitt went 21-12 and got a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In the following two seasons, Stallings went 24-41, and a staggering 4-32 in the ACC. He bottomed out with an 8-24 record last year, losing all 18 games in the ACC, accusing Louisville of paying players during a game, and basically turning everyone off of the program. Pitt's fall has been swift, and it has been magnificent.
Enter Jeff Capel, the former coach at TCU and Oklahoma who had spent the last eight years working for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Pitt has won its first six games under Capel, though the schedule has not exactly been a murderer's row; Pitt is 348th of 353 in strength of schedule, and just one of the Panthers' previous half-dozen opponents was ranked in the Kenpom top 150 (St. Louis, whom the Panthers beat by two points last week).
Capel has gone young and small early. Freshman Xavier Johnson (6'3", 190) leads the team in scoring (16.7 ppg) and assists (5.5 apg), and is third in rebounding (4.3 rpg). Senior Jared Wilson-Frame (6'5", 220, 16.0 ppg) and freshman Trey McGowens (6'3", 185, 9.3 ppg) join him in the backcourt. Wilson-Frame has taken about a third of the team's three-point attempts this year, and is making shots from beyond the arc at a 48 percent clip.
Pitt's frontcourt features two wings, junior Malik Ellison (6'6", 215, 11.3 ppg) and freshman Au'Diese Toney (6'6", 210, 10.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Quasi-center Kene Chukwuka (6'9", 220, 5.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg) rounds out the primary rotation but doesn't add much to the stat sheet. Six-ten sophomore Terrell Brown adds some production and size from the bench.
Defensively, Pitt has been impressive at keeping opponents' shooting percentage low (just 43 percent eFG%) while avoiding fouls (26.5% free throw rate). The Panthers don't rebound well -- the lack of interior size doesn't help -- and don't generate many turnovers; they just rely on opponents to miss enough shots to make up the difference.
There are two obvious tensions in this game. First and foremost, Iowa is more reliant on getting to the free throw line than any other team in the nation. The Hawkeyes are getting to the line 21 times more than their opponents, on average, this season; that translates to a 19-point Hawkeye lead at the line per game before anyone makes a shot. Put another way, Iowa is +96 at the free throw line through five games and -17 everywhere else. Pitt's free throw edge isn't as pronounced -- the Panthers are +51 at the line this year, and take 11 more free throws than their opponents on average -- but they don't foul much. If Iowa can get to the line against a team like this, it bodes well for this strategy going forward.
The bigger issue for Pitt, and the bigger advantage for Iowa, is simple size. There is nobody on Pitt's roster who can truly match up with Luka Garza's height, Tyler Cook's size and athleticism, or Ryan Kreiner's leverage game. Those three players have been Iowa's most productive contributors so far this year, and Pitt has no answer on paper to any of them. The only answer -- the only answer found by anyone so far, at least -- is to foul them.
The Hawkeyes have a trio of more well-rounded teams coming in the next two weeks. While Pitt might not have the personnel to hang with Iowa Tuesday night, it will be an effective warmup for those three crucial games to come.